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Some Selective Colleges Experience Decline in Applications

Bloomberg reports that some selective colleges have seen a decline in applications this year, as more and more students and parents fret about the freakish economy.

The article focuses on Williams College’s 20% drop in applications. Swarthmore dropped by 10%, while Middlebury dropped by 12%.

Other colleges have seen declines, but more around 1 or 2 percent over last year.

I don’t  see this phenomenon as all gloom and doom.

First off, students may be thinking more carefully about which schools really merit their consideration. If a family is going to shell out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college education, the student had jolly well better really want the college in question. If applications were submitted to Williams in the past simply for the snob factor, well, perhaps it’s a good thing that Williams’ pool has shrunken a bit.

Second, families are being more careful about taking out enormous loans to finance a college education. A year or two ago, most parents came into my office saying that they would gladly do “whatever it takes” to send Susie to the “college of her dreams.” With money tight, access to private loans closed off, and families trying to shed debt, more parents are thinking more carefully about going into hock for that “dream college.” The economic crisis has brought more families back to reality.

Third, declines in applicant pools among the top tier colleges does not–in any way–spell financial ruin for those colleges. They still have plenty more applicants than they have space in their incoming class, and if necessary, they can always find high quality applicants who will be happy to pay the full price of tuition.

The colleges that should be (and doubtless are) worried are those third and fourth-tier private colleges with itsy bitsy endowments and that have themselves borrowed heavily to build new science labs, add programs, and open new suite-style dormitories. Some, like the College of Santa Fe, may well be forced to close their doors.

Finally, the economy has raised to the fore some very cogent discussion about the value of a college education, period. In our heavily leveraged economic boom of just a few months ago, the talk among public school superintendents and K-12 policy wonks was about preparing every student for college. As a society, we have never been–and never will be–able to send every student to college. Perhaps the financial crisis has brought this lofty rhetoric back down to earth, too.

Clearly, this is one of the strangest and least predictable college admissions seasons in recent memory. But not every aspect of the financial crunch is going to lead us to educational wrack and ruin. Sometimes it takes a crisis to help focus the mind.

Mark Montgomery
Educational Consultant



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  1. Mark, how do demographics fit into all of this? Are we started to see a dip in the number of seniors? Likely not THE reason for a Williams-like drop, but it could be one of the reasons why schools are seeing slight 1%-2% drop off in #s.

  2. Hi, Peter. You’re right that demographics are a factor. Everything I hear is that we’re now at the top of the demographic bubble, and next year starts the decline in the numbers of kids graduating from high school. The economic crisis has just brought the trend on a bit earlier than anticipated, perhaps. I think you’re right that the normal trend would have been (i.e., without the economic mess) a continuing slight decline in applicants for the most selective schools. But I think less selective schools might see a steeper decline. Hard to tell at this point: the economy is throwing such a monkey wrench into things, making the trends hard to read.

    Nice to hear from you, as always.

  3. Peter & Mark, based on this data I blogged about a couple of years ago (http://collegeadmissionforum.blogspot.com/2006/10/why-is-it-so-difficult-to-get-into.html) it looks like we are indeed at the peak of the baby boom ‘echo’. However, as you’ll see from the chart, the number of graduating high schoolers only dips a bit before it starts rising again in a few years. It looks more like we’re at a plateau, at this high level. So based on this I wouldn’t expect to see any significant decline in the demand for selective colleges in the coming years, based on demographics.

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